Introduction: Exploring the Phenomenon of Sonic Waste in Anthropology 

Jonathan Larcher and Heikki Wilenius


“[I]t might be productive to think about moments when hearing and listening break down, when the putatively transductive operation of hearing encounters crisis.”

Stefan Helmreich (2007: 629)

This special issue had its roots planted in a laboratory organized by us in the annual conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) in 2020 which we called "Rubbish, Noise, Experimentations: New Afterlives of Field Recordings." Laboratories in the EASA conferences are spaces for venturing outside the standard conference format of papers. The intent of our laboratory was to resurrect old, possibly abandoned, field recordings by listening to them collectively, discussing the reasons for their derelict condition, and considering their possible (re)uses.


Rupert Cox, Debashis Sinha, Gabriele de Seta, Anton Nikolotov, Isaac Marrero-Guillamon, Rina Sherman, and Sandro Simon were participants in the panel, each presenting one or two sound excerpts, and Ernst Karel was the discussant. After the conference, we discussed the possibility of extending our conversations into longer pieces of writing and finally settled on a special issue in a journal that would be sympathetic to experimentations in the form of academic writing – The Journal of Sonic Studies. At this stage, new authors joined the project: Harsha Menon, who also participated in the original lab as a listener, as well as Julie Métais and Victor Stoichiță. Most participants from the original lab were not able to contribute due to other commitments, giving us the chance to present our own recordings – which were not played in the original laboratory due to time constraints – and accompanying analyses in this issue.


So, we are very pleased to introduce this set of five written essays and one video essay, each approaching the issue of failed or deficient ethnographical recordings from a different perspective. Along with these six contributions, in this introductory essay we briefly discuss the literature on anthropological and ethnological field recording and how it relates to our approaches. Finally, the issue is rounded off with a discussion with Ernst Karel that took place in Spring 2022. In it, we converse about the diversity of discarded recordings as related to ethnographic inquiry. 


To speak of ethnographic rubbish seems paradoxical for social scientists engaged in this practice and method. Whether in anthropology, sociology, political science, or geography – including the disciplinary subfields represented in this issue: political anthropology, visual anthropology, and ethnomusicology – the vast majority of researchers agree that ethnography accommodates many situations and (technical) constraints of observation, as long as these situations and constraints are allowed to be there. To do ethnography is, first and foremost, to observe a locality in order to produce fine descriptions of lived experience and social choreographies:


By ethnography, we mean an investigative approach based on prolonged observation, whether continuous or fragmented, of an environment, situations or activities, supported by skills that include access to the field(s) (gaining acceptance, gaining trust, finding one's place, knowing how to get out of it...), taking the most precise and thick notes possible and/or audio or video recording of sequences of activities in situ. [...] The primary medium of inquiry is thus the embodied experience of the investigator. (Cefaï 2010: 7)


Whatever the media-technical devices used during the ethnographic investigation – camera, portable recorder, video camera, microphone, smartphone, pen and notebook – most anthropologists and ethnologists would agree on this definition. There are nuances in the balance and relationships between the different methods of observation, recording, and notation (not to mention the different forms of rendering). The thorniest and most delicate problem relates, especially for this issue, to the matter of delineating the object of inquiry. None of the five contributors who rely on ethnographic inquiry – Jonathan Larcher, Julie Métais, Sandro Simon, Victor Stoichita, or Heikki Wilenius – will deny the centrality of the investigator's embodied experience, mobilized to bring ethnographic descriptions, data collected in archives, media, and statistics together to establish points of comparison and to provide keys for interpreting observations. What, then, precisely, constitutes ethnographic rubbish? A working definition would be: all that exceeds the ethnographer’s initial framework of description and observation, anything that eludes their initial intentions in transforming observations or in-situ recordings into a research artefact.


Rubbish as an Ethnographic Matter

Sound recording has been a staple of anthropology and related disciplines for a long time, and with smartphones it has – over the course of the last two decades – become a quotidian practice for virtually every researcher. The smartphone has completely replaced dictated diary entries; it is sometimes used for field recordings; and with the advent of low-cost voice-to-text AI services, it has the potential to replace even the venerated notebook entries. However, while a great number of audio recordings are made, most of them are focused on speech, and especially its semantics, at the expense of a broader attention to sounds.


By reframing the focus – or, repositioning the microphone, if you will – on the refuse of ethnographic inquiry, a more precise study can be made of the emergence of technical error and, ultimately, show how conventional multimodal practices can also function as a limitation for analysis. In other words, the media ideologies (Gershon 2010) of video and audio recording lead us to think about issues such as “quality” and “data” in a certain way, making us dismiss alternative ways of engaging with these material practices. But even more fundamentally, the ethnographic waste buried at the bottom of a box of cassettes, a pile of DVDs or hard disks, also attests to the emergence of another, alternative form of media, sometimes autonomous from the investigation, that falls outside the ethnographer's analytical grid or research hypotheses. This rubbish very often contains moments where the audio becomes an autonomous medium of this embodied experience of the investigator: a quality of an unexploitable recording (Wilenius and Larcher in this issue), for example. Additionally, when considering the question of what constitutes ethnographic refuse, a preliminary answer is rooted in an ethnography of the materiality of sound, beyond analytical preoccupations (Métais in this issue).


When approaching the materiality of aural waste, there are several possible theoretical strains to consider. First of all, we have the idea of an excess in sounds or objects in general, which can be traced back to different authors, especially Georges Bataille (1988) and Jean-François Lyotard (2011). Second, there is what Christopher Pinney calls the “Ginzburg problem”: when we analyze something that is non-discursive, we fall back to linguistic explanations (Pinney 2005: 260; Ginzburg 1989: 35). Or, as Marilyn Strathern puts it in the context of the anthropological endeavor:


If decoding the meaning of an object makes certain presumptions about its referentiality, then putting them within their social context becomes a symbolic move analogous to the expansion of a frame metaphor from a point metaphor. Referentiality always introduces a further set of tropes. The whole perception is now the object plus its explanation, the interpreted happening indeed. (Strathern 2021: 39)


Strathern points to the problem of analyzing material objects as objects or, even, as objects that might supply their own context, or multiple possible contexts. In sound studies, this thematic has been phrased in a similar manner, perhaps most famously by Pierre Schaeffer with his concept of “acousmatic listening,” attempting to circumvent the problem of contextualizing sounds according to cultural presuppositions (Schaeffer 2017). Andy Birtwistle builds on this idea, arguing that sounds are truly material objects, since they have an existence independent from their sources (Birtwistle 2010: 15–16).


What does it mean for sound to be a material object? Pinney argues, as a possible solution for the Ginzburg problem, for the creation of “true object tales,” meaning in the context of the aural that the analysis should let the recording open up to a variety of possible interpretations and reveal the discontinuities of the narratives. In his contribution, Wilenius argues that this can be accomplished not with the help of acousmatic – or “reduced” – listening but, instead, following François Bonnet, by engaging with the “audible traces of listening” (Bonnet 2016: 114–120).


Generally speaking, in anthropology and related social sciences, research that focuses exclusively on sound recording is still not an established practice. Steven Feld argues that the whole methodology of sound recording is underdeveloped in anthropology:


What about ethnographies that are tape recordings? [...] Until the sound recorder is presented and taught as a technology of creative and analytic mediation, which requires craft and editing and articulation just like writing, little will happen of an interesting sort in the anthropology of sound. (Feld 2004: 463, 471)


In this issue, we address this topic by presenting a variety of multimodal approaches to ethnography (Larcher, Menon, and Simon in this issue; see also Karel and Kusumaryati 2020), which demonstrate that, while sound is not always the most important part of the data collected, multimodal ethnographies also require audio recordings that are free from unwanted noise or errors. This is not only to make the material comprehensible, affording the analysis of the data recorded on the sound file (or tape), but also for presenting the material as a restitution of the ethnographic investigation to our interlocutors. Larcher’s and Simon’s reflections on the specific modalities of sonic, filmic, and videographic description take up the implicit challenge in Feld’s quote above, seeking avenues outside the conventional aesthetic standards of multimodal ethnography and contributing to our understanding of the possibilities and limits of “analytic mediation” in anthropology.


Referring to a broader definition of ethnography, Menon’s contribution also addresses the issue of sonic and cultural representation. Specifically, she foregrounds the lack of consideration for sound editing in anthropology (Boudreault-Fournier 2021). Her sound work explores exclusions or, rather, sound materials that have been treated as rubbish because of the way they are gendered. She explores the possibility of restoring agency to women by reusing sound materials in a montage. Combining multiple forms of sound art with an attention for the micropolitics of everyday life, heard through both contemporary public speech and Anne Sexton's poetry, Menon's contribution explores the possibility of an experimental ethnography through sound – a “critical method, a means of ‘reading’ culture and not transparently representing it” (Russell 1999: xvii). By extending the notion of ethnography beyond a “mere” scientific method, Menon reminds anthropologists that their audio recordings can (dis)serve research as well as culture and participate in, or deconstruct sound stereotypes. 


The horizon of a sound stereotype, in the practice of ethnography, is particularly present in the first moments of the inquiry, when the ethnographer is a bit of a “tourist in the soundscape,” experiencing those moments of initial astonishment: “When one travels, new sounds snap at the consciousness and are thereby lifted to the status of figures” (Schafer 1993: 211). The first perceptions of the soundscape are what ethnographers both mistrust and compulsively record. Anthropologists distrust these first perceptions because they are susceptible to the siren calls of the – perceived as exotic – sound topoi and stereotypes of their fieldwork and because they often occur before the researcher understands the “point of audition” (Chion 1993) and the lived experience of their interlocutors. Nevertheless, these first sound impressions, which do not distinguish noise from signal or voice from the meaning of words, are an integral part of the ethnographic inquiry. As ethnologist and filmmaker Stéphane Breton explains:


the first impression, [is] the one that overwhelms us when we don't understand the language, when we don't yet recognize the faces, when the places remain enigmatic. The first impression, that of the first three days, is too quickly erased by habit, and yet it's the one that gives us the desire to film. (Breton in Breton and Fartas 2021)


Not all ethnographers are as rigorous as Breton in documenting these first (sound) impressions. But there are openings, routes, and detours toward recovering these first recordings of ethnographic fieldwork. Some of them are presented in various contributions to this issue, most often relying on dismissed recordings. In all cases, the aim is to bring to the fore what was confined to the background.


Politics of the Background

The act of attentively listening to sound taken to be rubbish does not necessarily refer to the process of discerning a signal from noise or distinguishing a figure from its background. Typically, these processes have arisen with the intention of reducing noise, as exemplified by the historical development of sound reproduction in film that aimed to decrease the sound of technology on the optical and magnetic film soundtracks (Birtwistle 2010). Similarly, in the digital domain, several algorithms have been utilized “to clean the noise, or rather to discern the picture from inside the noise” (Steyerl 2014).


The contributions in this special issue deviate from these conventional approaches that tend to focus on addressing the issue of signal versus noise. Instead of merely distinguishing between the two, or prioritizing foreground over background, we suggest directing attention towards the persistent background noise, which acts as a constant presence in (almost) any ethnographic inquiry. This approach seeks to comprehend the ethnographic context by considering background noise as a parasitic element that needs to be understood and interpreted (cf. Thompson 2012: 19; Serres 2007: 3; Wright 2022: 34). For example, in his contribution, Wilenius, listening to a sound recording that he originally discarded due to the technical deficiencies that made it practically unlistenable, switches the analytic focus to the figure–ground reversals of the recording and event. In a similar manner, Simon examines the “overwater world in the tone from the underwater world” in a recording that moves between these aural domains.


Due to its disruptive power, noise is not only a reflection of the media-technical conditions of ethnographic inquiry but often the substance through which the contributors to this issue unearth the sonic background of their discarded sounds. For “an ethnographic ear” (Clifford 1986: 12), noise, as unintelligible as it can be, “does carry in it a promise” (Larkin 2008: 53). Thus, discarded recordings, these fragments of ethnographic rubbish, are not defined by their negativity but rather by their "affectivity" (Thompson 2017) and even their relationality. If the problematization of the distinction between signal and noise is so central to several of the contributions in this issue, it is because discarded recordings reveal how much noise can function as an infrastructure. In his study of loudspeakers in a Romani/Gypsy neighborhood in Romania, Larcher shows the extent to which their acousmatic and ubiquitous presence constitutes a veritable “ambient infrastructure” (Larkin 2016), a marker of inter-recognition that also creates an affective cartography, traversed by enmity and bravado. The saturated, distorted signal of the recordings, directly related to the volume of the loudspeakers, gives Larcher access to the ordinary attention and listening of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. These pieces of ethnographic rubbish thus distinguish themselves when considered within, as is often the case, a strictly musical apprehension of a community of professional musicians observed from an ethnomusicological perspective.               


As anthropologists, we want to emphasize the fact that what counts as “rubbish,” or even a technical error, enjoys great variance among different ethnographic contexts. Moreover, there is the “double hermeneutics” of recordings to be considered here: When one records “noisy” sounds, and the resulting object has additional sound artefacts, it is even further distanced from the ideal of a faithful reproduction of the original sound. Should the aesthetics of the soundscape and the recording, then, be analyzed separately? Or should the interpretation of “noisiness” from the ethnographic context inform or even direct the analysis of the recording?


For example, Wilenius talks about a Javanese sonic ideology that, on the one hand, emphasizes loudness, with its connotations of authority and power and, on the other, values sounds that are perceived as refined and should be respectfully ignored. He argues that this discrepancy between two kinds of sounds – one “noisy,” even “royally noisy,” and the other refined and usually rather moderate in volume – is something that Javanese juggle with when faced with situations that require both authority and grace. Additionally, he argues that the sound artefacts of his recording point toward this aspect of sonic ideology. What Wilenius initially discounted as “rubbish” becomes transformed through “archipelagic listening” (cf. Bonnet 2016, 268) into evidence of how sonic practices and authority are intertwined.


Another example concerning local ideologies of “rubbish” is discussed in Stoichiță’s contribution, where he describes the conflicting expectations of his musician interlocutors and himself in Romania during his efforts to document the sonic practices of Rom musicians called lăutari. Stoichiță preferred to capture the live performances of the musicians in large parties, along with all the ambient sounds, while the musicians wanted to capture a clean mix recorded straight from the mixer or, preferably, a studio performance enhanced with all the sonic enchantments – according to specific aesthetic ideals – that the environment and the technology could afford. When Stoichiță attempted to bridge these two sonic ideologies with “dialogic editing” (cf. Feld 1987), the results were perceived as lackluster by both parties. He argues that these “failed” recordings were an important step in developing an appreciation for the aesthetic standards of the Rom musicians. Ultimately, if the recording fails, it is because the dialogue itself can be distorted by errors, misunderstandings, incidents, and different aims, scopes, and expectations of the participants. Stoichiță reminds us that an ethnographic relationship cannot be reduced to a model of collaboration. Cooperation “is also a strategic interaction, in which each of the parties has his or her own turf to defend, trusts and confides only half-heartedly, and tries to achieve ends that are not the same as those of the partner” (Cefaï 2010: 467). As Stoichiță shows, in the specific field of ethnomusicology and anthropology of sound, dialogue also relies on the willingness of ethnographic subjects to lend themselves to the game of co-composing with several hands (and several ears). That the “dialogic editing” worked for Steven Feld was because he systematically worked with composers (and not only performing musicians) in his fieldwork (cf. Feld 2023).


Describing Noise, Composing with Ethnographic Rubbish

How can one present these discarded recordings in a way that allows their "noisy" and "parasitic" (cf. Thompson 2012) qualities to be heard while at the same time affording a listening experience that does focus on background noise yet goes beyond a superficial attention to “accidents” or recording errors? In the concluding discussion of this special issue, Karel, Larcher, and Wilenius discuss the problem of representing noise, failures, and rubbish that have piled up during ethnographic fieldwork. The ethnographic rubbish presented in these contributions is situated in a disciplinary in-between.


In part, these recordings and analyses occupy a place between ethnographic work, which meticulously describes the background noise and parasites heard on location without producing audio recordings, and the practice of location recording, which is more often an artistic or practice-based research that most often does not include written ethnographies. Thus, despite the infrastructural turn taken in anthropology over the last two decades (Star 1999; Larkin 2008; Sahlins 2010), methodological inventions relating to the sound documentation of material infrastructures, such as “roads and water pipes, electricity lines and ports, oil pipelines and sewage systems” (Appel, Anand and Gupta 2018: 2) or other “global infrastructures channel[ling] flows of people, goods, and wealth” (Carse 2014: 5), have emerged within the field of sound art and field recording or through new forms of collaboration between sound artists and anthropologists. Their recordings and compositions thus offer a central role to the technical incidences, dynamics, and parasitic frequencies that have traditionally been dismissed as nuisances (Carlyle and Cox 2012; Riek 2015; Neuman-Hammond 2021).


Through their composition of text, images, video, and sound, the contributors to this special issue attempt to invent ways of presenting these “nuisances” so as to make them audible (and hopefully even appreciable) while demonstrating what a heuristic of an ethnography of background noise could sound like in anthropology.


In the discussion, Karel remarks that the problematic of representing noise has a precedent in the history of visual anthropology: a suspicion of media materials due to them containing too much information. But, he continues, this overwhelmingness or excess of media materials is exactly what interests multimodal anthropologists. However, there are material limits: using Wilenius’s sound sample as an example, Karel points out that due to the high-frequency distortion, this recording is painful to listen to in a way that an analogue recording never is.


In “Expedition Content” (2020), Karel’s and Veronika Kusumaryati’s “augmented sound” work, they conduct a decolonizing critique by offering excerpts from the sound archives of the Harvard-Peabody expedition in 1961 in Dutch New Guinea, including technical errors, prejudiced opinions of the expedition members, and serendipitous sound encounters that assiduously and devastatingly reveal the incomprehension of the researchers within their environment. Executing a strategy of tactical editing related to Karel’s and Kusumaryati’s work, Harsha Menon approaches the issue of representation by composing a montage of women’s voices, out of which emerges a critique of marginalization and gendering practices. In this way, the emphasis of noise and rubbish can also be a source of empowerment, as demonstrated in Geronimo Inutiq’s ARCTIC NOISE project, which seeks to decolonize systems of meaning by emphasizing the productive power of noise in communicating knowledge. Inutiq is a video and sound artist who uses noise as a counterstrategy for escaping the ethnographic gaze that would label his work as stereotypically “Indigenous” (cf. Hennessy, Lynn-Smith and Hogue 2018).


In sum, this special issue proposes that – through working with, reproducing, and editing sonic waste – one can conjure a distinct kind of ethnographic magic. It may happen with the hiss of the blank magnetic tape or the digital distortion of a smartphone recording; it might require the presence of nostalgic compression artefacts or a novel juxtaposition of archival materials that have been considered worthless in the past. And, should the endeavor succeed, one can create a space and time in which different kinds of listening experiences might emerge alongside a concomitant, disparate analytical thinking.



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